Complex Emergencies: David Keen Responds
First of all, I would like the thank Zoe Marriage, Michael Barnett and Angela Raven-Roberts for taking the trouble to read the book, and for their insightful, critical and sympathetic comments.
A large part of what I am trying to get across in the Complex Emergencies book, as Michael Barnett correctly perceives, is that the aims in a war are complex. At one level, this may be a statement of the blindingly obvious. The main reason it is worth stating and re-stating is that so many influential discourses about war deny this complexity and, in so doing, help to create space for violence. Whether in the “˜war on terror‘ or in a conflict like Sierra Leone‘s, defining war as a collective effort to defeat some named evil (al Qaeda, the Revolutionary United Front) may create space for all manner of abuses (by governments signing up to the “˜war on terror’, by Sierra Leonean government soldiers and civil defence fighters) that reflect separate agendas that are frequently economic and frequently anti-democratic. I want to stress the importance of looking at hidden conflicts and of examining the violence that is legitimized within a particular working definition of what a conflict is “˜about’. The aims in a war should certainly not be reduced to the (commonly emphasized) aim of “˜winning’, and here I think the book can genuinely give pause for thought to those who assume that this is what war is about. Actions that are predictably counterproductive from a military point of view – like selling arms to the enemy, or radicalizing civilians by attacking them – begin to be much more comprehensible within this alternative framework.
The point is not so much that my definition of war or my “˜theory’ of war is better than anyone else’s (in fact, I do not think I define war and I would rather not!); rather, as Zoe Marriage perceives, the aim is to encourage a greater degree of open-mindedness when we are confronted with conflict and to promote awareness that each term we use (ethnic conflict, war, civil war, genocide and so on) carries with it a set of “˜baggage’ that may distort our perceptions and, in so doing, provide space for intensified abuse and suffering. Genocide is a pertinent example of a label that may have its uses but may also close down thought (not least in relation to Darfur). Aiming to destroy, in whole or in part, an ethnic group is in some ways a very “˜odd’ aim; of course, there are many historical instances of genocide – in Turkey, Germany, and Rwanda. There are also elements of this in Darfur. But there are also dangers in putting too much energy into deciding whether Darfur is a genocide. And there is a danger that labeling it so will serve as a substitute for subsequent thought and understanding. Any solutions will need to take account, for example, of the motivations of the “˜janjaweed’ and of Sudanese government actors at various levels. These motivations are quite diverse and cannot all be reduced to the desire to eliminate, in whole or in part, an entire ethnic group. As work by Roland Marchal shows, the “˜baddies’ in Sudan have in many ways been the “˜victims’ in Chad. Attacks on food convoys might easily be “˜reduced’ to an element in a genocidal strategy; but in a recent article in the journal Disasters, Helen Young noted
By assisting only one group, such as the IDPs, the international community is inadvertently perceived to be partial by the wider community in Darfur. Certain groups (particularly rural and Arab groups) did not receive any international assistance until 2005. Thus, it was not entirely surprising when in late 2004 humanitarian convoys of food aid started to be targeted en route to their destinations in Darfur.
The extent to which Arab groups are marginalized from political processes and humanitarian relief remains under-recognised today. Nor is this something new. It was, in many ways, the marginalization of many Arab pastoralists in Sudan’s pattern of development (and relief) that paved the way for the Sudan government to turn these groups against the south in the man-made famines beginning in the mid-1980s. Part of the aim of the book is to show how such “˜grievances’ interact with “˜greed’: the grievances of northern pastoralists were useful for a government trying to get its hands on oil in areas that famine and militia attacks helped to depopulate; meanwhile, the “˜greed’ of the Arab militias themselves (for labour, cattle and land) was itself intimately linked to their grievances. Somewhat similarly, in Sierra Leone the abuses of government soldiers cannot be separated from the institutional neglect of these actors (both during and before the war); the bizarre collaborations between soldiers and rebels in that country reflected not only the economic advantages of directing one’s violence against civilians but also the shared grievances of marginalized youth who became involved in one fighting faction or another. Progress in Sierra Leone came, in part, from improving government soldiers’ conditions. As one young man in Freetown put it,
If you deprive a man, he will become undisciplined. Civilians have started praising the military. You can be naturally peaceful, but the situation can make you behave like an animal. People can change. The environment is the thing.
As Hugo Slim’s excellent new book Killing Civilians makes clear, any attempt to persuade abusive parties that they should not kill civilians (as opposed to merely preaching international law at them) will need to take account of the variety and complexity of their goals (political, economic, personal, etc.), and to frame its arguments accordingly.
The aim of opening up different ways of thinking – whether for students or humanitarian workers – is perhaps not a particularly modest one, particularly since many of these students and workers know much more about many of the world’s crises than I do.
Nevertheless, that has been my goal. And it is one reason, I think, why I have criticized Paul Collier more than some of the other analysts mentioned by Michael Barnett. Collier’s contribution is not to be dismissed. There is evidently a role for quantitative analysis in freeing us from the “˜each case is different’ approach and in moving us towards a certain kind of theorizing. I do accept that my own approach is vulnerable to the criticisms Michael Barnett makes. Collier certainly helped to draw attention to the important role of “˜greed’ in many conflicts, and his analysis of the “˜collective action problem’ is insightful. However, Collier went further than most in suggesting that his numbers were more helpful in analyzing conflicts than the arduous business of asking people about their motivations (since rebels would always emphasise “˜grievances’, in his view, even when the cause was “˜greed’). This is where econometrics tips over into arrogance and starts closing down the possibility of a genuine understanding of conflicts or, by extension, of a political settlement that addresses underlying grievances.
In some ways, my concentration on Collier may also reflect the fact that his emphasis on “˜greed’ was uncomfortably close to some of my own analysis (notably in the Adelphi paper “˜The Economic Functions of Violence in Civil Wars’, 1998); there is an element of self-criticism in my more recent emphasis on politics and psychology. I am also mindful that qualitative analysis inspired much of the Collier work, a fact that has rather got lost in the self-referential world of Collier and his followers. It also annoys me that a lot of the “˜scientific air’ of the Collier work is quite bogus as the selection of proxies is so arbitrary. A final gripe, perhaps the most important, is that Collier’s focus on rebel motivations feeds into neglect of all the state actors (and actors linked to the state) and their role in contemporary conflicts.
I hope that Angela Raven-Roberts is right when she says that the Complex Emergencies book can play a role in preparing aid workers for the field and in helping to debrief the often-traumatised aid workers when they return from the field. She highlights questions commonly asked by returning aid workers, including “Where did we go wrong?” and “Why don’t “˜they’ like us?” One common assumption that has fed into misunderstandings and trauma, in my view, is the assumption that “˜all reasonable people’ will go along with a particular humanitarian project (or, by extension, a particular peace or a particular process of international justice). When this proves not to be the case, the temptation to label the impeding forces as “˜evil’ or “˜inhumane’ is considerable. This in turn carries the seeds of mutual antipathy between aid workers and significant elements of a local population. There is a wider tendency to “˜lurch’ from one idealized view of the world to another, perhaps equally unrealistic view, and this is manifest when war “˜fails’ to live up to its reputation as a contest that “˜two sides’ are trying to win, a “˜failure’ that generates the temptation to label the violence as mindless and evil or, in a less extreme formulation, the work of “˜spoilers’. This is where some degree of hesitancy in condemnation can – as Zoe Marriage reminds us – play a positive role. If we can take the time to understand the complex motivations of the relevant parties, we may guard against repeating some of the mistakes of the past and guard against the temptation to label those who do not share our expressed goals as “˜evil’.
I say “˜expressed goals’ because we are by no means exempt from complex motivations or from the interplay of idealism and interest. For aid workers, the sense that they are “˜doing good’ can be a powerful obstacle to thinking and the incentive to impress one’s bosses may sometimes be stronger than the incentive to be candid. For institutions involved in humanitarian work, there may be powerful organizational interests in claiming that they are part of the “˜solution’ when in fact their impact may be marginal or even unhelpful. Michael Barnett has himself helped us to understand how a pretence of “˜voluntary repatriation’ may disguise a relocation of decision-making from refugee to international agency. More generally, the tendency of aid agencies to claim that they are offering “˜protection’ is often highly questionable, as powerfully documented by Sara Pantuliano and Sorcha O’Callaghan in the case of Darfur. The limitations of peacekeeping forces in Darfur also come to mind. “˜Peace’ itself may be something of a mirage, and the non-inclusive elements in particular peace agreements contain important seeds for future violence (whether this is the Comprehensive Peace Agreement encouraging rebellion in Darfur, or the Darfur Peace Agreement feeding into violence there). In general, the temptations of “˜magical thinking’ – whether in humanitarian aid or in irrational solutions to terrorism – are something I try to highlight in the book. Drawing on Hannah Arendt as well as Foucault, I try to understand how such magical thinking is rendered – for a time at least – plausible. When other “˜games’ take precedence over resolving a particular humanitarian crisis, “˜magical thinking’ has been regularly invoked to “˜square the circle’. In the case of Darfur, these other games have included the “˜war on terror’ (and the desire to get Khartoum “˜onside’), access to oil, good relations with China, and a desire not to sabotage the fragile north-south peace process.
Of course, academics are not immune from self-interest and economic pressures or from exaggerating the efficacy of their “˜solutions’. There may be pressure to say something “˜new’, to give it a scientific aura, and to defend what one has said in the past. All these things can inhibit truth-telling and constructive thinking.
Angela Raven-Roberts also points out that the Complex Emergencies book has underplayed certain literatures, notably the anthropology of development and NGOs and the role of gender in conflicts. I have to plead guilty on both scores, and it would be good to hear even more from Angela on contributions that she has found exceptionally valuable. In terms of the anthropology of development and NGOs, my own thoughts have been very much influenced by Tim Allen, Barbara Harrell-Bond, Randolph Kent, Chris Dolan and Zoe Marriage, among others. Related work – more a sociology of development agencies and their discourses – has been Edward Clay and Bernard Schaffer’s “˜Room for Manoeuvre’, a key text in my view and certainly an often-neglected one. In terms of literature on gender and violence, I have benefited greatly from writing by Judith Zur, Agnes Callamard and Chris Dolan (again). I found work on Sierra Leone by Physicians for Human Rights to be particularly enlightening and also a recent article on sexual violence in the DRC in the Journal of Modern African Studies by Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern. Angela mentions that the gender literature and the political economy literature do not talk with each other very well, and I think this is true. I do agree that some of the gender literature can be very conceptual and complicated; I also think it can be stronger in pointing to the existence of sexual violence and in condemnation of this violence than in explaining it. A problem with analysis of violence in general is that understanding may look like excusing; and I think this has been a particular problem with analysis of sexual violence.
Zoe Marriage asks what is the “˜function’ of the Complex Emergencies book and points out that decades of interesting analysis on Sudan have not prevented continuous mass suffering there. Many innovative works have been strongly influenced and informed by Sudan’s long-running conflict (including Mark Duffield’s and Alex de Waal’s), and it may indeed by the case that Sudan has served the cause of analysis more than analysis has served the cause of Sudan. If analysis can sometimes be useless in relation to events on the ground, there is another (even more depressing) possibility: that it will be actively harmful. Nick Stockton in particular has highlighted the possibility that criticisms of aid “˜fuelling conflict’ have fed into the withholding of humanitarian aid, notably in relation to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is one area where the invitation to look at one’s own role in systems of violence – something underlined by Zoe Marriage – is particularly pertinent. If I had to point to a positive practical contribution made by the political economy literature, I think that the investigations of UN Panels of Experts in West Africa and DRC, and related attempts to exert targeted pressures on key actors, may be a case in point.
One of the most innovative and interesting books on famine is Alex de Waal’s 1989 book Famine that Kills (on famine in Darfur, 1984-5). The existence and considerable influence of this book has not, of course, provided Darfur with immunity from (a very different kind of) famine today; nor would one expect that it should. However, de Waal’s book – like Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famines before it – has played a valuable role in helping people (including aid workers) to think about the complexity of famine and the various causal processes involved when people die in a famine. After Sen pointed out that individuals may starve even where food is abundant, the point looked obvious enough; but until then the “˜food availability decline’ approach had held a remarkable sway. When de Waal urged the need to examine people’s coping strategies and the need to understand the role of exposure to infection rather than simply malnutrition, some of this came to look like “˜common sense’. But the originality of these contributions reflected, in part, a prevailing laziness where analysts and actors thought they had understand “˜famine’, since famine was “˜obviously’ a shortage of food in a particular geographical area. This is an area where Michel Foucault is particularly helpful, in line with Zoe Marriage’s comments: what is “˜obvious’ in one era may cease to be so, and we need to investigate the roles that language and politics have played in these transitions.
If pushed, I would express my own attempts at a “˜theoretical’ contribution in the following way. First, a key factor causing suffering in recent conflicts has been the benefits that can be extracted (and, by extension, the way that discourse has facilitated these benefits). (This started out as an interest in the various political and economic “˜benefits’ of famine in Sudan, extending later to war in general; I agree with Zoe Marriage that analysis of the AIDS pandemic needs to take account of underlying interests, one of which is the degree to which AIDS has been seen as actively functional from a moral point of view.) A second theoretical contribution, I tentatively suggest, lies in the argument that one cannot understand these conflicts unless one understands the perception among perpetrators that they are, in some sense, victims (and simple condemnation of the perpetrators may only reinforce this perception). (As with the first contribution, many others have been pursuing similar lines of enquiry: James Gilligan’s work has been a big influence here, and a good book exploring perpetrators’ perspectives is Mahmood Mamdani’s When Victims become Killers, on the Rwandan genocide). I am not sure whether these contributions are better conceptualized as theories or as simply pointing to an important set of questions. If they were to be theories in the true sense, they would have to make predictions about the circumstances in which these dynamics are relatively important and unimportant and this, I think, suggests potential for further work. I mentioned that I do not define war, and this in itself suggests a limit to my theoretical ambitions as well as the hope that, by avoiding such definitions at the outset, one may create opportunities for a more genuine exploration of what war is (and how it might differ, and not differ, from “˜peace’).